In the summer of 1998 I sat alone in a dark movie theater. By this time, I was doing everything alone and in the dark—including drinking heavily. I never would have guessed, with all my previous attempts at recovery, that I was a mere eighteen months away from finding permanent sobriety. All I saw ahead of me was more darkness and loneliness.
The movie I was watching was “Saving Private Ryan”—the story of the D-Day invasion and the harrowing search for private James Ryan, who the army discovers is the last survivor of four brothers in the war.
In his dying moments on the battlefield, Ryan’s rescuer, Captain John Miller, whispers to private Ryan “earn this!”
The final scene has the seventy-five year old Ryan kneeling in front of the grave of his beloved rescuer. Ryan, with tear-filled eyes, stands and turns to his wife and say’s “Tell me I’m a Good Man”. Saving Private Ryan: Final Scene.
In the darkness of the theatre I quietly wept. It was not the brutal war scenes that shook me. It was this moment, in the evening of Private Ryan’s life, when he desperately wanted to know from those closest to him, if he had indeed earned the sacrifice of his rescue by becoming a good man.
It was then and there that I was starkly confronted with the truth: I had failed in the most fundamental area’s of my life—as a husband, a father, a son, a brother, employee, and a friend. All the pipe dreams I conjured up over and over again were now laughable in the face of my failures in the things that really mattered.
So, I wept, not because it was a moving story, although it was. I wept, because I knew what the answer would be if I asked that same question to my wife or my children. At that moment, while everyone got up and left, I sat there waiting for my tears to stop. I discovered in that final scene everything I wanted in life. I now cherished the simple but illusive idea of being a good man in this world.
The Hebrew word for ‘good’ is often translated to English as ‘righteous’. This Hebrew word connotes the idea of being merciful and kind, of acting justly towards others, and doing it all with humility. This Hebrew notion of ‘good’ is further described in the book of Micah 6:8;
He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?
I survived my alcoholism—only God knows how close it was. This now has become my time to ‘earn this’. Like many others who have survived traumatic experiences and severe loss, this experience of survival has given me a whole new perspective of what is important and what is not. Psychologists call this a “Paradigm Shift”—others a “Spiritual Awakening” and still others a “Metanoia”, or conversion experience.
Whatever you wish to call it, they all have the same earmarks: our values are turned completely upside down— things that were of utmost importance (fame/fortune/applause, etc.) no longer are. They are suddenly replaced with a radically different set of values.
This is not a simple and sentimental “stop and smell the roses” moment. It is no less than a huge internal displacement as the full weight if both heaven and earth crashes down.
This upheaval takes place in those hidden corners of the soul, unseen to the world, and noticed at first only by you—but then, gradually, over time, it becomes noticed by those close to you.
The end result of this moment has been that my foggy bar stool daydreams of grandeur have given way to a simple desire to be helpful today—whether it is at home, at work, in my neighborhood, my Church, or any other groups I am associated with. Alarmingly simple.
A few years back I was traveling away from home, and feeling a little homesick (kind of like I am this evening as I write this). I woke up in my hotel room in the middle of the night to a mental image from my young fatherhood days. In those days, it was my task to brush the long, knotted curls of my daughter’s hair after they have had their baths while my wife Susan got lunches ready for the next day.
With four girls, it could take an hour. But, that hour seemed to me sacred—charged with holiness. Nothing else mattered when that was going on.
So, at 2:00 am in a Hampton Inn I was given this poem:
Brushing My Daughters Hair
I think of all the other things
I could be doing right now,
tasks a man like me can do,
fine work only I know how.
That which a man of my skills can do,
In a manner that strikes you with awe.
Noble tasks I toil till through,
Making bricks without straw.
Yet you sit so silent in the chair,
while your sisters wait in line.
I gently pull the brush through your hair
I ask how I’m doing– you say “Fine!”
No tear is shed nor “OUCH” declared
As I labor long at my task.
The brush floats through the tangled hair
Getting easier with every pass.
Each knot unfurls one stroke at a time,
as an artist at his easel.
You are still and content, no whimper or whine,
The brush makes our world more peaceful.
For all those dreams I daily compete,
to conquer this thing or that,
as each daughter in turn sits at my feet
I see this is where it’s at.
When I am bent by struggle and strife,
this small act my illusions lay bare.
I never feel closer to my purpose in life
than when I brush my daughter’s hair.
I know I have changed when my heroes have. They are no longer music, movie, TV, or sport celebrities. My heroes are the people I know in recovery, or who care for the homebound and the homeless, who serve the poor and otherwise marginalized, and especially those mothers and fathers who sacrifice every day for the welfare of their family.
Several years ago, The Dali Lama was addressing a large crowd. The crowd had been waiting anxiously to hear him, hoping to receive the secret to a happy life. After some time, he approached the lectern and quietly said, “There are only two things you must remember to have a good life—First, Do no harm. Second, help whenever you can.” Then he sat down.
Little did they know they just received the secret to a happy and full life
My hopes and dreams for my children and grandchildren are not that they would be famous and rich, but that they would be happy and healthy—that they would be full of goodness and love.
I have heroes like this in my life today. My wife, my children and their spouses, my siblings—and all who are devoted to the wellbeing of others. That is what being a good man and woman is. I am convinced today that there is no higher calling than that.
At the end of our lives, we will not be remembered for our golf score or our bank account balance. We won’t be asked how many books or records or movie tickets we sold. The people in our lives don’t care how many of our Face-Book posts are liked or how many of our tweets are shared. They will remember, though, how much we loved, and how we demonstrated it.
I am not quite ready to ask that question “Am I a good man?”– but the question spurs me on each day. I pray it does you as well.